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Chapter Three— Mallarmé and the Elocutionary Disappearance of the Poet
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"Crisis in Verse"

The facts that shine through the irony or fiction of English Words —namely, that there is no necessary correspondence between the sound


of a word and its meaning in French, English, or any other language, that the sound-sense relation is arbitrary and capricious—serve as the logical point of departure for the more somber and skeptical view of language that Mallarmé proposes almost two decades later in "Crisis in Verse." But if these facts show that the system in English Words is a lie, and if they thus precipitate the crisis that Mallarmé refers to in the title of his later essay, they also serve as the basis for a hopeful resolution to that crisis.

The section of Mallarmé's patchwork essay in which he presents his view comes from a piece he published in Variations sur un sujet (Variations on a subject) in 1895. The point of departure is two marvelously simple perceptions:

Languages being imperfect in that they are several, the supreme one is lacking: since thinking is writing without accessories, or whispering but the immortal word still being tacit, the diversity, on earth, of idioms prevents anyone from uttering words that otherwise would turn out to be, by a unique stamp, materially truth itself. . . . Next to ombre, opaque, ténèbres darkens little; what disenchantment in the perversity that bestows upon jour as upon nuit, contradictorily, a timbre that is dark in the former case, light in the latter.
(OC, p. 363–64)

Mallarmé is making the same point that Humboldt made in his principal work on language. Both refer to the fact of the diversity (Verschiedenheit, diversité ) of human languages. Any theory of language that pretends to see a necessary correspondence between sound and sense is contradicted by the simple fact that there are so many languages and that each has its own word for any one thing or concept. Otherwise we would be able to utter words that "would turn out to be, by a unique stamp, materially truth itself." That is the first point. The second applies to an individual language considered apart from "the diversity, on earth, of idioms." Take a language like French, for instance, and put it to the test to see if there is a necessary connection between the sounds of its words and their meanings. You will soon come upon examples like the one Mallarmé mentions: jour, which has a dark sound but a light referent (day), and nuit, which has a bright sound but a dark referent (night). As Mallarmé well knows, this single example is sufficient to demonstrate the fallacy of supposing with Cratylus that even in a single language there can ever be an intrinsic correspondence between sound and sense. And as Mallarmé undoubtedly also knows, having demonstrated the fallacy of the sound-sense correspondence, he has demonstrated the fallacy of English Words as well. For even if English did show a statistically high


correlation between words with certain initial letters and a small group of related concepts (and Mallarmé has not shown that it does), this would still not be enough to establish the inevitability of the correlation. Either language is magic or it's not; the existence of even a few exceptions shows that it's not. English Words, filled as it is with faulty methodology (intentionally, no doubt), really demonstrates the same thing as "Crisis in Verse," only ironically.

But that's only the crisis in language; the essay is about a crisis in verse . Here is how Mallarmé makes the transition. Immediately after the last phrase I quoted he says, "The wish for a term of brilliant splendor, or that it should be extinguished, the opposite; as for simple, luminous alternatives—Only know that verse would not exist : it, philosophically compensates for the shortcoming of languages, superior complement" (OC, p. 364). This appears to be Mallarmé's crabbed way of saying that if our wish for a universal match between bright words and bright ideas, dark words and dark ideas, were to come true, then we would no longer have verse. Verse owes its existence to this patent shortcoming of language. This is certainly a novel idea, particularly since other, contemporary poets and thinkers asserted the distinctness of verse by claiming for it the mythical, Cratylic condition.

But Mallarmé has a somewhat more imaginative notion of (verse) language than many of his contemporaries. In fact, what he has done is to invert the poetry-prose distinction of his contemporaries and successors by claiming a Cratylic aim for prose and a different notion of language for verse. Here is how he introduces the distinction, in a characteristically complicated and humorous passage:

Abolished the pretension, aesthetically an error, even though it governs masterpieces, to include on the delicate paper of a volume anything other than, for example, the horror of the forest, or the silent, scattered thunder in the foliage; not the intrinsic and dense wood of the trees. A few spurts of deeply felt pride veraciously trumpeted abroad arouse the architecture of the palace, the only one fit to live in; apart from any stone, on which the pages would close with difficulty.
(OC, p. 365–66)

It's not just that Cratylism is false in the real world; it's that, even if it were true, it would be an aesthetically wrong concept. In the privileged language of poetry, language mustn't strive to render the forest—that is, the trees themselves, or the palace—in its physical reality. After all, Mallarmé quips, we wouldn't be able to close the book on all those big stones. No, poetic language instead must strive to communicate intan-


gible things, like the horror the forest inspires or the mute thunder—not the actual crashing thunder, but the residue of feeling it leaves behind in the trees.

Ordinary language doesn't function in this way. It functions, so Mallarmé's favorite joke goes, like money in a commercial exchange: "Narrate, teach, even describe, that's fine and even if it were enough for each of us perhaps, in order to exchange human thought, to take from or place in the hand of someone else a coin in silence, the elementary use of discourse serves the needs of universal reportage, of which, with the exception of literature, all the genres of contemporary writings contain elements" (OC, p. 368).

How is poetic language different? The key is what Mallarmé calls transposition. "What is the use of the marvel of transposing an act of nature into its vibratory almost-disappearance through the play of speech, however; if it is not so that from it should emanate, without the encumbrance of a close or concrete reference, the pure notion" (OC, p. 368). The most famous sentence in this essay once again stresses the nonrepresentational functioning of poetic language. "I say: a flower! and, apart from the oblivion to which my voice relegates any contour, understood as something other than the known calyxes, musically there arises, idea itself and pleasant, the flower absent from all bouquets" (OC, p. 368). The result of the use of language is not the transfer of a concrete thing; the thing is "transposed" so that only the pure notion of it remains. As Mallarmé says in another famous statement, "Divine transposition  . . . goes from fact to the ideal " (OC, p. 522; Mallarmé's emphasis). The "flower absent from all bouquets" is the ideal flower evoked in the sound "flower," and it is absent for the good and sufficient reason that it is ideal. Poetic language, rather than having "the function of facile, representative cash," rediscovers a prized quality: virtuality (OC, p. 368).

Concrete things are not all that disappears in the act of poetic speaking. "The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who instead yields the initiative to words, mobilized by the clash of their inequality; they light up from their reciprocal reflections, like a trail of fire on gems, taking the place of that palpable breath in the lyric inspiration of yore or the enthusiastic personal direction of speech" (OC, p. 366). Meaning no longer comes from the poet; nor does it come as the result of aggregating the individual meanings of words, the way one can aggregate the individual values of coins and bills in a fistful of cash.


Instead, it emerges from the "reciprocal reflections" of the words, from the relational complex formed by the poem, which is seen as a structure, not a linear accumulation of word-references.

Mallarmé has come a considerable distance in this essay from the apparent impasse he faced in the observation that words don't mean by a "unique stamp." In fact, he has found a way out of the archaic notion of language that makes such an impasse possible. In the old notion, both for those who are confirmed Cratylists and for those who nostalgically yearn for Cratylism in an ideal past, language is a vertical medium made up of distinct units of meaning, each of which has the responsibility of transmitting a particular thing or concept. The naive Cratylists believe that this is how language really works. The skeptics realize that language doesn't work this way in the real world, but they feel that it should, that real languages represent a kind of fall from grace. Mallarmé, however, has abandoned the view of language that both groups presupposed. If there is no "unique stamp," then that is all to the good since language, at least good language, has a higher purpose. In this view it's not even relevant to be "materially truth itself." Truth doesn't have the rudimentary sense that the old view assumes.

Where Mallarmé's reflections lead is to a relational notion of language. But they also lead to another cardinal moment in the history of language theory. In chapter 1 I mentioned Mallarmé's role in the fracturing of language. I quoted Foucault's comment that Mallarmé played a major role in that process and in the movement of language to a state of "philological objectivity." We can now see how true Foucault's comment is, and we can see the logic by which Mallarmé arrived at those ideas. Once we have abandoned the Cratylic comfort of the sound-sense correlation, placing ourselves in a world where meaning assembles itself from the spaces between words, we have also abandoned the bond that unites poet and language. Transposition takes place in the language, not in the poet. It renders the pure notion of things. This pure notion comes to us from the clash of inequality of words; hence the "elocutionary disappearance of the poet," that is, the disappearance of the poet as a speaking presence. Because language is a system of clashing inequalities, the poet has yielded the initiative to words. When it comes right down to it, words are all there is; they are the only real thing that we encounter in language. That's why Mallarmé chooses to compare them with gems—hard, cold, objective gems. And that's why Foucault can speak of the "unique, difficult being" of language that Mallarmé leads our


thought back to. Mallarmé has fractured language by separating it from the poet, and he has rendered it hard, opaque, objective, precisely because it is separate.

Mallarmé is not the only French poet to address problems of language in a context of literary aesthetics. Paul Valéry comes to mind, too. His "Poetry and Abstract Thought" ("Poésie et pensée abstraite") revives the old poetry-prose distinction, suggesting that the peculiarity of poetic language is that it calls attention to itself as language. Valéry also modifies the Cratylic conception of language by proposing that poetic language merely gives the illusion of a necessary harmony between sound and sense.[4] But "Poetry and Abstract Thought" was written in 1939 and doesn't form part of our history. Besides, the most interesting things Valéry had to say about language have more to do with relationalism than with Cratylism or the poetry-prose distinction, so we'll leave them for later.

The value of Mallarmé's theory of language is that it so compactly presents the whole complex of issues in modern literary aesthetics. The argument in "Crisis in Verse" leads naturally, logically, to a theory of relationalism. Mallarmé's hesitation between mysticism and skepticism shows him still in the grips of an older tradition based on faith ("You can't do without Eden") but pulled also toward the realm of the purely speculative and the thorny, characteristically twentieth-century question of aesthetic ontology. All these areas of thought are related. Poised on the edge of the twentieth century, Mallarmé conveniently bequeaths them to modernity as a system.


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